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Save the World! Earn $25 million!

Filed under: — group @ 19 February 2007 - (Português) (Türkçe) (Français)

Guest commentary from Juliane Fry, UC Berkeley

On February 9, The Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson announced a $25 million prize for anyone who can demonstrate “a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth’s climate.” At the press conference announcing this “Virgin Earth Challenge”, Branson was joined by Al Gore, and the panel of judges for the competition includes additional climate change celebrities: James Hansen, James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, and Sir Crispin Tickell.

The goal of the competition is to find a method that will remove at least 1 billion tons of carbon per year from the atmosphere. It will be very interesting to see what ideas come to the fore to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere. $25m should encourage some creativity! (and of course, once working should bring in a significant amount of carbon offset money). A ruckus was caused last year when discussion of injecting SO2 into the stratosphere to form reflective sulfate aerosols to mask global warming made scientists feel they needed to state their position on this controversial, poorly understood proposal. During the discussion, a New York Times feature (described here ) discussed various “geo-engineering” alternatives to exert a cooling effect to mask global warming. At least in this case, we are not seeking to add something new and uncertain to the atmosphere, but rather, remove something that we added.

192 Responses to “Save the World! Earn $25 million!”

  1. 1
    Christoffer Torris Olsen says:

    I’ve been working with climate in politics for quite some time now, and this is maybe one of the ideas that worry me the most, except for sticking to BAU.

    I’d like to know what kind of perspective you have on this though, but it sounds somewhat daunting to me. We can see what happens in the atmosphere when we fill it with carbon dioxide too fast, and I’m worried that we won’t know what happens if we suddenly remove it again. Do we know what kind of defense mechanisms the planet uses to mitigate our changes? Do we know that we’re not provoking reactions in a different way by removing CO2 abruptly? (any large amount over a couple of decades is “abruptly” in a planet point of view, in my opinion)

    I would be very glad to hear some scientific responses on the matter :)

  2. 2
    Magnus W says:

    I think the link is bad… and as I said earlier I’m not so happy about sulphates in the air, our lakes don’t really like that.

    But hopefully some cleaver bloke will solve this, can’t see it happening soon thou.

  3. 3
    Lou Grinzo says:

    Caution is always a Very Good Idea with this much at stake, but I’m personally not worried that we’ll suddenly remove too much CO2 from the atmosphere. My biggest concern is that even a very modest effort like this would be used as an excuse to keep burning coal in the filthiest way possible and actually make things worse. After all, there are plenty of hard core deniers out there who will latch onto any excuse to avoid even the tiniest inconvenience or cost associated with the reduction of CO2.

  4. 4
    Eli Rabett says:

    Picking a fight with all the laws of thermodynamics is not a good career move. Better by far to start sequesterization by gathering the CO2 from smokestacks (one of the good things about plug in cars is that even if fossil fuel is used to generate the electricity, it moves CO2 generation to a place where the concentrations are very high and the efficiency is much higher than in a gasoline powered car.)

  5. 5
    Steve Bloom says:

    Save the world! Earn $500,000,000 for your research university! Ahem.

  6. 6
    Paul M says:

    Isn’t Branson the guy who owns the airlines? Don’t planes burn fuel? Now he wants to award his well earned profits and take the co2 out of the air? Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop flying the planes?

  7. 7
    Steve Bloom says:

    I had a quick look at Juliane’s site and highly recommend a brief tour to all. I suspect anyone outside the field (atmosphere chemistry) has no hope of comprehending the content (although I was able to nicely expand my mental list of nitrogen compounds I know nothing about :)), but it’s nice to be aware of this sort of thing when the usual suspects make the usual point about model uncertainty due to clouds/aerosols. There are a lot of very smart people busting their butts to provide the modelers with the needed physical understanding, and we don’t hear much about their work.

    In particular, I want to thank Juliane for going to the trouble of maintaining a web site with linked paper pdfs, and in particular the page describing her research and where it’s headed.

    Oh, and welcome to the East Bay! Hopefully the reduction in personal exposure to your subject matter won’t set your research back too much. :)

  8. 8
    rick hanheide says:

    Here’s my solution: just genetically engineer a plankton that first floats together as a small group in/near the ocean surface and uses solar enegry to break down CO2. The carbon is deposited in the interior of the mass. The plankton reproduce as neccessary to continually cover the surface area of the enlarging carbon ball. When the carbon ball grows to the size of a tennis ball (don’t want to damage ship propellers) the plankton stop making pure carbon and make something heavy. Eventually the mass sinks to the ocean floor. Problem solved.

    The most important item overlooked in the discussion of any very long term problem like gloabl warming is this: Knowledge expands exponentially. By 2050 this solution (or 10 others way more creative) will be doable by any high school biology class.

  9. 9
    tom street says:

    We clearly are beyond the point where there is much hope for cutting emissions to any meaningful degree. Yes, a major concern is that a scheme to take the co2 out of the air will just encourage the proliferation of coal burning. However, I think it is crystal clear that nothing will cause humanity to exercise any restraint anyway. Certainly, the U.S. will not.

    The sad part, though, is that we will probably end up with taking no co2 out of the air and we will continue to be profligate in our fossil fuel use.

  10. 10
    Marcus says:

    Re: #1: I think that it is unlikely we will be removing enough CO2 to actually _decrease_ the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Given that we are adding 7 billion tons of carbon a year to the atmosphere (and growing) the removal of a billion tons per year would only slow the CO2 increase…

    Re: Original post: Does the Competition actual state a billion tons per year? I can’t find the exact quantity stated anywhere (“significant volume” seems to be the criteria, and the statement seems to be broad enough that removal of methane, N2O, or other GHGs would also qualify).

  11. 11
    Paul M says:

    Coal and energy burning made this country what it is today with the steel and rail era and giving the immigrants jobs back then. Now China wants to follow suit and make their country as prosperous as ours using the same model. Now we want to tell them they can’t? That to me is a slap in the face right there. We won, you lose, now let’s call the whole thing off by blowing eachother to smithereens.

  12. 12
    Paul M says:

    This will be my last post for a while, I apologize for posting three times. My fear is this whole global warming crisis will bring out the worst of us, not the best. can anyone realisticly see humankind working together to kick this thing, or does the crisis have the propensity to bring out the Hitler like traits in us all? Idealistically I would like us all to work this out but realistically I see a horror that I will not spare any words on. May God have mercy on us all.

  13. 13
    Wang Dang says:

    Carbon dioxide plus calcium oxide forms calcium carbonate, heat calcium carbonate to release concentrated CO2 and then sequester in an appropriate manner.

    Where do I collect my money?

  14. 14
    Paul Jackson says:

    Dr. David Keith( has been working on sequestration of CO2 from the air for at least 2 years.

  15. 15
    Craig Allen says:

    I have to say that the responses to this commentary so far are very odd. If we could find a way or ways to strip carbon dioxide it would be a great. Why all the misery and gloom at the possibility that someone may come up with a solution.

    Re #1: The odds of a mechanism being found whereby we could suddenly remove quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere in quantities large enough to negatively affect the climate is minimal. Once/if solutions are found then we can worry about how fast to implement them.

    Re #3: Power stations can be, and in many places are built so as not to be filthy. This is a separate issue to dealing with the CO2. It is nuts to suggest that we shouldn’t solve the CO2 problem because some countries will then continue to build dirty power stations. They will do it anyway.

    Re #6: Yes Branson does own Virgin Airlines. He’s also into rail transport in the UK in a big way and has pledged $3 billion for the development of biofuels and in the short term is pushing to improve the air travel CO2 output efficiency by 25%. If he pulled his planes out of the air then other companies would instantly replace the market share. The remarkable thing is that he has pledged all profits from his airline and rail businesses over the next 10 years to address climate change! And he is a mover and shaker in the business world, pushing for other companies to start showing some responsibility for their emissions. Any individual or company making such commitments should be applauded.

    Environmentalists can take on a victim mentality, winging and moaning about everything – in which case we become part of the problem, encouraging everyone else to bury their heads in the sand. Or we can be realistic about the problems, but get excited about possible solutions thereby accelerating their uptake.

    Having said all that, I am a little disappointed in this commentary because it is really just a news headline. Perhaps someone at RC could write a piece that discusses the science behind the various CO2 sequestration technologies currently on the table – their feasibility, economics and potential environmental impacts.

  16. 16
    Jeff Weffer says:

    CO2 credits are selling for about $10/tonne right now.

    Whoever invented this method might be able to get paychecks of $10 billion per year compared to “selling” it (I’m sure there is fineprint) to Branson for $25 million.

    [Response: I don’t think that anyone assumes the process will be cost-free. So the issue is not what the credits are now, but whether any new process can cost less than the credit. And of course, as well as the money economics, this has to make sense in energy economics too. i.e. you can’t release more CO2 in emissions producing the energy that is required than you take back. So either you have to use previously unused renewables for your energy source, or you need to be doubly effective. Neither of these hurdles are easy to bridge. – gavin]

  17. 17
    tamino says:

    Re: #12

    can anyone realisticly see humankind working together to kick this thing, or does the crisis have the propensity to bring out the Hitler like traits in us all?

    I can.

    It may bring out the worst in us, or it may bring out the best. I think it depends a great deal on leadership. Then next U.S. presidential election will be very important in this regard.

  18. 18
    Paul M says:

    Craig, enthusiasm is nice, but you are like a baseball manager trying to rally the team that is down 22-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Instead of encouragement, it further adds to the sick feeling in one’s stomach of the predicament we are in. I applaud your attitude, but still feel it is too little too late.

  19. 19
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    I did see an Earth Day program last year in which a chemist father & his daughter had developed a “tree” structure (rounded-edge rectangle on a pole). The wind blows through it, and it captures the CO2, turning it into calcium carbonate, I believe. They did show the result….some calcium carbonate. The “tree” requires no energy to run, so it’s only the cost of the structure, plus it’s ugliness factor (maybe they could make it look better).

    Every little bit helps, and along with alt. energy, reduce, reuse, recycle, and planting real trees, this type of thing may become a part of the overall solutions package. But it won’t solve the problem; it will only help a little.

  20. 20
    Juliane Fry says:

    Hi all,
    Thanks for the interesting discussion so far!

    The concern that figuring out how to sequester CO2 could act as a “license to burn” more coal is important, since dirty coal has such a negative impact on local air quality and human health, in addition to emitting CO2. However, I doubt any carbon removal solution would be so cheap and so easy that if we get serious about removing CO2 from the atmosphere we would simultaneously continue to burn the most carbon-intense fossil fuel without scrubbing CO2 (and other pollutants) at the smokestack.

    Re #4: Eli, I agree that plug-in vehicles provide a great way to sequester vehicle-related CO2 emissions. Sadly, Virgin’s prize applies only to removal of CO2, not avoided emissions.

    Re #8: Rick, I’m glad of your optimism that any high school student will be able to sequester CO2 by 2050. But I’m not sure we have that long – if we don’t act quickly, the amount of CO2 we’ll need to remove from the atmosphere might become insurmountable. The spectre of going past climate “tipping points” also looms large if we wait until carbon sequestration becomes cheap & easy.

    Re #10: I also couldn’t find the 1 billion tons / year number on the Virgin Earth website – it comes from the press coverage of the announcement of the prize.

    Re #15: Craig, I agree that amidst all the gloom and doom about climate change it’s good to get excited about possible solutions, regardless of what spurs their discussion. I also feel much more positively about a “geoengineering” approach that scrubs CO2 from the atmosphere than one that injects sulfate aerosol – the former keeps us much closer to the known world of climate states we can better predict. To your last point – a colleague and I are in the process of writing a short paper on geoengineering options that are being discussed which will include some of the analysis you request of carbon sequestration ideas. I’ll try to post that in some form here once we’re done to add some more scientific “meat” to the discussion of carbon sequestration.

  21. 21
    Jim Roland says:

    Some of these concepts as well as geo-engineering ones featured on a BBC2 documentary tonight.

    I’m quite intrigued by their one about manufacturing urea to feed into the oceans to seed algal blooms, which somewhat goes against what I’ve read about the problems we’re storing up synthesising nitrogen fertilizers.

  22. 22
    Hank Roberts says:

    I recall work done with electrical stimulation of coral reefs —- I wonder if anyone’s checked into that as a way of boosting removal of CO2 from ocean water.

  23. 23
    Lou Grinzo says:

    I gave a series of presentations on energy to 10 classes at a local middle school, with some side discussion on the horrors of CO2 pollution and some other related topics.

    I intended to do it purely as a way to contribute something to the educational process. What happened surprised me.

    First, I found after the first couple of classes that when I got the part about global warming, nuclear waste, etc., that I was spontaneously apologizing for the incredible mess my generation and those that came before it had made for these kids. If you want to get a 7th or 8th grader’s undivided attention, tell him or her, “We screwed up about as badly as someone can screw up. Now it’s up to you to figure out how to fix it. That stinks, a lot, and I apologize.”

    Second, I was stunned by how undaunted they were. These kids wanted to charge up the mountain, pass laws, invent technology, do the heavy-lifting science, you name it, whatever it took to remake their world and fix this compound mess. It was more endearing and inspiring than I can express here.

    My point in all this? The best thing humanity has going for it right now is the relatively short human lifespan, because that ensures a constant turnover as the old guard shuffles off stage and these kids jump into the fray.

    The current situation scares me spitless, but those kids make me keep fighting as hard as I can; there’s no way I’ll let them have all the fun.

  24. 24
    JT says:

    Great summary of how global warming is perceived in the world. You are right how most people see global warming as an “environmental issue” and not an energy issue. However, there is one major aspect to global warming that most people also don’t recognize and its the livestock industry. A report by the Food and Agriculture organization from the United Nations says that other more harmful greenhouse gases Nitrous-oxide and methane have a more devestating effect on global warming than the transportation industry worldwide. If you click on my blog, there is more information on that. But just thought I would comment on your blog about that.

    Support Alternative Energy
    My Blog

  25. 25
    Daniel Goodwin says:

    Has anyone offered a reward for finding a way to turn base metals into gold?

  26. 26
    Chai Ming Toong says:

    Not Until Dead, which body will know that planting tree on all the desert of earth is the best method to solve the climate warming up due to CO2 increasing? Who want to invest so much money in the desert while profit return may take 10 or 20 years which depend the need of the people and the earth?
    A pipe line to let the water from sea to transpose to desert and a water filter factory are needed to do these job. A computerise controlled system to distribute the water to every tree planting is also needed like the Israel doing nowaday. Some type of tree which require fewer water and can get large money returned need to be developed through using gene technology nowaday or future. Mixing genetic of oil palm tree and varius economic plant with cactus may produce best result. This method may solve the problem of crisis of energy, hungry in Africa, climate warming up and the possibility of war.

  27. 27
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    Well, as Gavin pointed out, the problem might reside in the thermodynamics of CO2 removal. It would have to be examined throughout the entire process of manufacturing, operating and even eventually disposing of both the CO2 and the removal equipment. It’s not a bad idea but must go along with maximizing renewables and conservation.

  28. 28
    George Ortega says:

    If the contest is not limited to technological solutions, here’s my entry; a political one that will remove far more CO2 than the contest requires:

    The time has come to criminalize obstructionism on global warming mitigation. During several talks available through Google Video, (i.e. ) Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter, Ross Gelbspan, quite appropriately referred to energy executives and others deliberately attempting to misinform the public about, and prevent necessary actions to mitigate, global warming as criminals against humanity.

    On February 2nd, the IPCC made public what is now universally accepted (not counting the lunatic fringe) as the “smoking gun” report on global warming, thereby “officially” ending even the most remote serious notion that an on-going debate still exists on the matter or its urgency. As such, the stage has been set for a member of Congress to introduce legislation that would propose two specific actions.

    First it would call upon Congress to issue a powerful resolution that formally acknowledges the scope and urgency of the global warming threat, and, equally importantly, designates the threat quite clearly and officially a national security threat of the highest magnitude. The bill should propose a law that considers it a felony for anyone,(including our President and other elected officials if such a clause is Constitutionally permissible) to deliberately, or through reckless negligence, attempt to advance the public perception that global warming is not as great a threat, or action on it not as immediately necessary, as Congress has officially resolved.

    There are certainly precedents in our legal system for such a curb on First Amendment rights, the most notable having to do with aiding and abetting an enemy during war. I suppose an appropriate exemption from this proposed law would be that ONLY papers in major peer reviewed scientific journals would maintain the right to publish arguments that challenge certain specific findings on global warming, but not it’s basic nature and urgency.

  29. 29
    Wang Dang says:

    There was a very good article on CO2 sequestration in Science a couple of years ago by Klaus Lackner (Maybe 2003).

    A few years earlier (2001), I read about dumping liquid CO2 into the ocean. The thought was that the oceans would have the capacity to absorb whatever carbon we could dump in without problems. It didn’t take long for scientists to realize that if it were all dumped in as dissolved CO2 (carbonic acid) there would be problems with lowering the pH of the oceans. So the idea of dumping sequestered CO2 into the ocean seemed to die off (and alarm over acidifying oceans was born).

    Recently I read about the discovery of natural lakes of liquid CO2 at the bottom of the deep ocean. Apparently, at the right pressure and temperature, the CO2 will remain a liquid separated from the water by a layer of solid hydrate. With this information, would CO2 sequestration in the deep ocean be back on the table?

  30. 30

    From comment 4,

    Picking a fight with all the laws of thermodynamics is not a good career move.

    A misleading formulation. Capturing a CO2 molecule from its diluteness in air takes much less energy than is yielded by its formation from a CH_x in a fossil fuel.

    Better by far to start sequesterization by gathering the CO2 from smokestacks …

    Thermodynamics is very much on our side, if we are those who want to pluck out from the air already-dispersed CO2 molecules and those that will soon be dispersed. It is much more on our side than the people who constructed 102 GW of new coal-fired electric powerplant last year in China.

    In comment 19,

    … a chemist father & his daughter had developed a “tree” structure (rounded-edge rectangle on a pole). The wind blows through it, and it captures the CO2, turning it into calcium carbonate, I believe. They did show the result….some calcium carbonate. The “tree” requires no energy to run …

    But it won’t solve the problem …

    Energy is required to calcine the calcium carbonate and sequester the pure CO2; as noted, this energy is much less than that yielded by the fossil fuels. Google “plumbostatic”.

    This most certainly can solve the problem. So can several other approaches, but they depend on collective restraint; only one bunch of good guys is needed for this one.

    The “trees” may be someone’s attempt at popularization through garbling; actually the quicklime would be strewn over fields, somewhat less than 1 m^2 per person with a present-day Western-style fossil fuel habit. One would not use Rhode Island for this purpose, but if I recall correctly, it’s big enough to capture all the world’s CO2.

  31. 31
    Wang Dang says:

    Can I just say one thing about Branson. If this guy really cared , he could give the money to people who have been working on this for the last ten years. Instead he goes for the photo-op with Gore and Clinton promising a big cash prize that he will never have to pay out. He gets all kinds of press, the Virgin brand is highlighted, he gets to market himself as the green billionaire and what does it cost him? Nothing. He is a marketing genius.

    If we do get a sequestration system up and running, the first billion tons removed will be from Branson’s own personal carbon footprint.

  32. 32
    mark s says:

    Hiya all,

    re #28, i’ve been thinking something similar, why don’t we go for a class action, rest of the world vs the US govt. It would get an awful lot of publicity, even if it fell at the first hurdle, and americans seem to understand litigation better than science.(thats a AAAS joke!)

    It might at least focus a few minds…

    re #21 I saw the BBC2 prog, and thought that it just shows how rattled everyone is, that geo-engineering is getting a run out.

    Still, if there is a ‘magic bullet’, it would be great to find it before Greenland/WAIS passes the tipping point… oops, looks like we might well be too late! (The Guardian UK Feb 19,’Climate change: Scientists warn it may be to late to save the ice caps)

    My favourite was the sea-water yachts, on the basis that if it did work, i couldn’t see any serious side effects.

    Finally, could Branson could win his own prize, if he sold his airline. Surely its not a tax dodge! :-)

    regards, and thanks 4 the thread Juliane

  33. 33
    Sonja Jetson says:

    hello darlings, I did the math!

    S’poze you took atmospheric concentrations of co2 at 250 ppm, and spoze you had a filter that was capable of removing all of that carbon in one single pass. You would need to pass the equivalent of three quarters of a billion cubic kilometres of air through your filter per year, for ten years.
    Surely there would be a sizeable energy requirement.

  34. 34
    Alan says:

    Re #6

    Yes. Yes. Yes. No.

  35. 35
    Mike says:

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  36. 36
    Paul M says:

    In a nutshell, Post 31 is right. Branson is advertising for a janitor. Any scientist up for the challenge? When the problem is solved (in this case it won’t while humans exist) Branson will treat you like a janitor…….By continuing his lifestyle while never speaking to you again.

  37. 37
    Jan-Peter Onstwedder says:

    Re #19 – fully agree. Solutions to excessive emissions require first and foremost changes in behaviour by all of us. The unfortunate desire (which we all share) to rant and rave, to be right at the expense of others, and to keep fighting yesterday’s battles can stop us from achieving our goals. It closes the minds of those we argue with and thus they will not change their behaviour.

    This is no longer about whether the science is right or not, it is about how to effect behaviour change in all of us. That requires co-operation, applauding of any initiative that might help or at least does no harm. It requires us to stop being cynical and start being optimistic: optimists and idealists can inspire change, cynics never do…

  38. 38
    pete best says:

    humankind has injected some 200+ billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere so far and shows no signs of abating as yet. Humans are increasing their energy use globally as the population is increasing globally, in the west we may be increasing our renewable/sustainable energy sources but we are also using more energy to and due to the way that energy is produced at the present time it is unlikely that fossil fuel usage will drop.

    I would imagine that what has happenned here is that someone under Bransons employment has looked at the alternatives available to humankind at the present time and maybe 10 years into the future and had decided that humans are more thanb likely going to continue burning all of the available oil and gas over the next 40 years and that even if alternatives are found (second generation ethenol and other biofuels etc) then at best they will only reduce dependence and not replace it. Ethenol is some 30% less energy dense than Oil and is at least 10 years away from being economically viable (if it all). 10 years before its begine to supplement Oil and another 10 years before it is mitigating oil is any meaningful economic manner, ie 10 mbpd or so.

    Wind turbines are showing some very real promise in terms of percentage replacement of coal electricity needs, however it will take very large scale events to replace fossil fuel by a economically viable margin, ie 50%. We would require massive winf turbines and massive amounts of them. Here in the UK a plan has been hatched to build two farms of 100 and 344 turbines that will produce 1% of our electricity requirements.

    Who knows about Gas as it is used for heating. I am unsure as how we can produce enough by another means to offset it.

    So that leaves two ideas left, energy efficiency and offsetting some other forcing to compensate for the one that we are pushing. Energy efficiency is the way to go. Cars that do 50 mpg are feasible and available now, light bulbs that use 1/5th of the electricity, cavity wall insulataion, all new buildings to pay special attention to energy conservation and use solar power as much as possible etc. Micro wind turbines of some descritpion where possible. And last but not least decelop wave and tidal power for coastal areas where possible.

    Energy efficiency sounds like a better option that offsetting another primary forcing or attempting to absorb Co2 from the atmosphere en masse. Anyone heard of conservation laws?

    Option 1 was reflecting the Sunlight by launching 000’s of tiny mirrors into space. This project is enourmous and would require so many roacket launches it is a non starter.

    Option 2 was seeding the upper atmosphere with SO2 I believe in order again offset sunlight reaching the earth. This sounds like it could get the go ahead when all is lost in some 40 years time.

    Option 3 was artificial trees, not sure exactly how this works but I guess that they would scrub CO2 from the atmohphere or turn it into something else via using wind power. One tree can scrub some 90,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum by using filters of sodium hydroxide and the CO2 injected into the earth.

    Option 4 was seeding the oceans with additional plankton in order to soak up additional CO2. by seeding the oceans with liquid nitrogen apparantly.

    Option 5 is to make clouds apparantly, firing droplets of seawater towards special clouds, marine stratocumulus would make these clouds more dense and more relelective thus mitigating the Sun.

    Or maybe all of these. but the real concern here is that scientists and really concerned people who have looked at the worlds population growth and their need for prosperity and progress to continue apace and the solutions available to us now couple with the time lags of the infrastructure and the political will have decided that stopping polluting the atmosphere is unlikely to any significant degree, certainly not the 65% demanded by the experts in order to offset climate change and hence other solutions must be found not matter how unsound they seem.

  39. 39
    Adam says:

    The prize is not much more than the profit made by Virgin Trains 2005-06 (and is now getting a large subsidy). This is a rail franchise that is not exactly busting a gut to get many more people onto the trains (short trains, expensive tickets, etc.). I hope the prize does result in a good, efficient method, but this does smack of easy publicity.

  40. 40
    P. Lewis says:

    There’s a fine line between healthy scepticism and downright cynicism. And in my opinion some respondents on this issue are the wrong side of that line. Be that as it may, on the sceptical front it should be remembered that the “fine print” of this announcement indicates that the prize is only open for 5 years; judges (who will include Branson, Hansen and Gore) will meet annually to determine whether any project merits the award. What happens to the prize after 5 years is a matter for future discussion. Since it’s a tall order to get from idea to practical industrial reality in 5 years, then perhaps Richard Branson’s money is safe … and the prize is his money, because the offer is from his personal fortune, not from any one of his companies. And he has asked that governments match his offer. No chance of being killed in the stampede there, then, I’d warrant. (Oops! Careful. Cynicism creeping in.)

    What has not been made apparent here or at the recent prize announcement press junket (or perhaps it has been lost amongst the general prize hubbub) is that Branson, last year, committed himself/his (transport) companies over the next 10 years to giving all profits (according to press reports anyway) towards fighting global warming, which should amount to something in the region of US$3 billion. And at the launch of Virgin Fuels last year he committed £214 million (US$400 million) to invest in green energy projects over the next 3 years.

    So, yes, the man is a business man, and yes it’s good publicity for him and his companies, but this man is genuine and he has given a serious commitment of serious amounts of spondulicks here. The right time for cynicism is 5 to 10 years down the road if the money committed in 2006-07 has not been forthcoming by ~2016-17, not now. At the very least this has put the subject of amelioration to the fore, as it is as certain as anything can be that air travel is not going to decline anytime in the next 15-20 years, and people are not going to give up their personal transit systems anytime soon either. Now, if only I had a viable idea …

  41. 41
    catman306 says:

    If Mr. Branson’s challenge cannot be met, we can be pretty sure that the Greenland icecap will melt or slide into the Atlantic quickly raising sea levels perhaps 30 feet. The logistics of our modern society depend on the cheap transportation of raw materials, manufactured goods,food, and fuel. Seaports will be unusable with that kind of rise in sea level.

    Floating oil terminals and compressed natural gas terminals have been designed and built and are in use. But most manufactured goods and much food is transported in multi modal containers on large ships and loaded and unloaded at huge terminals where these ships can be quickly turned around.

    Someone needs to start working on a floating container ship terminal which can unload and reload a container ship with a comparable turn around time as today’s land based terminals. Scores of these terminals will be needed world wide if our civilization is to survive such a quick, catastrophic, and possibly, on going, rise in sea level.

  42. 42
    Marco Parigi says:

    Wouldn’t CH4 or N2O capture be cheaper and more immediately effective? 1 Billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year may even be being done by current Kyoto-funded capture projects. Or what about the invention of an additive to cow-feed that limits or stops their emmissions? That would win the prize hands down.

  43. 43
    David Thorpe says:

    Two ideas for reclaiming carbon from the atmosphere and locking it away.

    I’m afraid they’re both fairly lo-tech, but hey, as long as they work, who cares? It makes them all the more easily implementable.

    Here they are:

    1. Grow trees, harvest the wood, turn it into charcoal, which is an inert form of carbon and won’t decompose, and sell the charcoal as a soil enhancer/conditioner to farmers and everyone with a garden. This solution is the subject of an article in the Jan/Feb issue of Renew, the publication of the Open University’s NATTA, the independent national UK ‘Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment’ (Though maybe not the online version). The solution is based on research conducted in the Amazon rainforest where charcoal hundreds of years old has been discovered and analysed, and its usefulness as a soil stabiliser revealed. The charcoal, as I say, is a permanent lock-up for the carbon, and by selling the charcoal the scheme becomes self-financing.
    2. Grow hemp and use it as a building material, mixed with lime to form ‘hempcrete’. Hemp is fast growing and a very good absorber of atmospheric carbon. Once secure in the lime concrete, it gives the material great strength, and locks the carbon up for as long as the house exists. A conference is being held in April to discuss the technology at the Centre for Alternative Technology.

  44. 44

    [[The bill should propose a law that considers it a felony for anyone,(including our President and other elected officials if such a clause is Constitutionally permissible) to deliberately, or through reckless negligence, attempt to advance the public perception that global warming is not as great a threat, or action on it not as immediately necessary, as Congress has officially resolved. ]]

    You’re an agent provocateur for the deniers, right?

    The solution to the other side arguing against you is to argue better, not to suppress debate. I don’t think fascist solutions to the problem are either needed or morally right.

  45. 45
    David Wilson says:

    “When the scientists manage to tell the story clearly, the public understands.” Susan Solomon, NOAA. (Ambiente Brasil)

    I know this is not related to this particular post – but I thought it worthy of repeating. Just to say to y’all; Keep up the good work!

    [Response: Thanks! -mike]

  46. 46
    Mark Ritzenhein says:

    I am anxious and reluctant about any methods which involve massive and further human manipulation of the “natural” systems of the planet as a means of mitigating CO2, for the basic reason that we do not know what other awful consequences we may thus set in motion.
    The comments and reactions by scientists on this site verify for me that the real problem, for human beings, is a social matter: can we formulate a society and way of life in which we live in voluntarily restrictrive circumstances? It’s never happened yet, and it goes against human nature. So, I remain resigned to my own hopelessness on this matter.
    I am now reading a popular work, 1491, in which the author, Charles Mann, outlines current anthropological research on the first human inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, and the current assertions that they, in small numbers and with limited techonolgy (fire, agricultural cultivars, human labor) manipulated vast landscapes which were previously considered virgin and prisitine environments (Eastern N. America, Amazonia, the Patanal). The effects, while large and noticeable, and having some negative consequences, were not overwhelmingly negative due to the relatively low population (I am supposing); forests remained intact as forests, e.g.
    In the present day, the sheer numbers of human beings on the planet guarantee that our impact is great, carbon-loading and otherwise (I call this century the Global Era). If such small numbers of people really did have such a large impact on the environment in N. and S. America over one thousand years ago, then how much greater is the present impact worldwide?
    All animal populations which exceed the carrying capacity of their environment eventually face a catastrophic collapse in numbers. Our intelligence allows us to jump our niche time and again, leaving me to conclude that the sum of all life on this planet is our “true” niche. When we exceed the carrying capacity of the planet’s life systems to sustain such an artificially high human population, then it will most likely crash down to near-zero. We might limp along for awhile as a species and then flicker out altogether, or be completely extinct before 2100. I term this auto-genocide.
    These thoughts are not scientific, surely, and thus inappropriate for this blog. But while the dedicated and concerned (and respected) participants debate molecular minutiae here, I think that the real answer lies in the social realm, with a long-term perspective on human nature. We are what we are, and we shall endure the consequences of that. Mark

  47. 47

    Re a claim to have done the math. now do the math for how much air flows over Rhode Island, within a reasonably thin turbulent boundary-layer.

  48. 48
    Nick Gotts says:

    It’s clear enough why Branson is doing this: aviation is both a large part of his business and a personal passion, and there’s no short or medium term alternative to kerosene as an aircraft fuel, nor any way of producing it using renewables or nuclear power. While aviation’s share of GHG emissions is currently only a few percent, its growing VERY fast, and will within a few decades, if projected growth occurs, account for essentially all the GHGs we can afford to emit. I imagine Branson has looked at the existing ideas for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and knows they won’t work economically in time to allow this continued growth (see below). So if he wants to keep doing what he’s doing and still feel good about himself, this is the only option.

    Re #14 “Dr. David Keith( has been working on sequestration of CO2 from the air for at least 2 years.”, and #30. Keith and colleagues seem to be about the only people currently working on scrubbing CO2 out of the air. In the long term (22nd-23rd centuries) it might be a way of reducing CO2 concentrations, but even though he’s clearly an enthusiast, Keith doesn’t claim the technology is currently anywhere near competitive with other means of mitigation, and notes a possible (socio-political) problem. He says in DAVID W. KEITH, MINH HA-DUONG and JOSHUAH K. STOLAROFF (2006) “CLIMATE STRATEGY WITH CO2 CAPTURE FROM THE AIR” (Climate Change 74(1-3):17-45):
    “Because air capture may provide some insurance against climate damages, it presents a risk for public policy: the mere expectation that air capture or similar technologies can be achieved reduces the incentive
    to invest in mitigation. Yet, while air capture removes irreversibility in CO2 concentration increases, it does not protects against irreversibilities in the climate systemâ��s response to forcing.”
    An editorial in the same issue points out additional problems.

    Re #40 “it is as certain as anything can be that air travel is not going to decline anytime in the next 15-20 years, and people are not going to give up their personal transit systems anytime soon either.” Then we’re pretty much toast. Most people, of course, never fly, won’t in the next 15-20 years, and don’t have personal transport systems. If us rich keep on being selfish enough to insist on our “right” to these things and hence screwing up the climate, I can imagine a lot of them getting very angry indeed, and some of those angry people taking extremely violent action.

    Re #42: Additives to reduce methane production from ruminants are already known, but a lot more research is needed. Similarly, land management systems to reduce nitrous oxide. See “U.S. Climate Change Technology Program â�� Technology Options for the Near and Long Term August 2005” at

  49. 49
    Alvia Gaskill says:

    The prize is actually to be awarded in two installments. $5 million is awarded upon demonstration of the potential of the design to achieve the desired level of GHG removal from ambient air. The remainder is to be disbursed after the technology has been used for 10 years. Given the scale of the effort to actually implement the technology, the operational cost would dwarf $20 million to the extent that the $20 million would almost be irrelevant. However, even millionaires sometimes win the lottery, so if this were to come to fruition, I’m sure the winner would still gladly take the rest of Sir Richard’s money.

    As to the specifics of the targets, the award website does not spell this out. However, a reading of it clearly suggests it means ambient CO2 and probably quantities (the award refers to volumes, not GtC) on the order of billions of metric tons per year.

    This rather quickly reduces the size of the field to almost nothing. Your choices are enhanced biological removal or artificial chemical absorption processes. The various ocean engineering schemes advanced to date, including the one on the BBC all fail due to lack of some limiting nutrient or the energy cost of producing the nutrient.

    Add iron to iron deficient southern ocean water and you get plankton growth until silicon, nitrogen and phosphorous become limiting. Add nitrogen where iron isn’t limiting and you either create a big mess and/or the energy cost of generating the nitrogen (burning of natural gas to make ammonia in the production of urea) and GHG emissions wipe out the benefits.

    The invite the salps over for dinner idea has yet to be shown doable (100 million plus giant drain pipes in the Gulf of Mexico that somehow utilize wave action to upwell nutrients) and would come close to a billion tons a year if it worked.

    Planting trees and other land plants as has been discussed here before is a non starter for a host of reasons (land availability, nutrients, water) and trying to grow them outside of the tropics appears to worsen albedo feedback mechanisms.

    This leaves (no pun intended) the artifical tree type ideas to remove CO2 from ambient air using natural draft towers and chemical absorbing solutions. Such ideas to remove CO2 from ambient air have been tossed around for 25 years and unfortunately, the same laws of thermodynamics in place in 1987 apply in 2007. It just takes too much energy to recycle the sorbent. There is no source of a single use sorbent in sufficient quantities to get around this limitation.

    Thus, the Keiths and Lackners are faced with as of today, two seemingly insurmountable problems. The inefficiencies (<5% removal efficiency) associated with removing a valueless product (CO2) at dilute concentrations from a gas stream (the ambient air) and the high cost of sorbent regeneration, making the entire process cost more than $1000/ton carbon removed.

    Breakthroughs in this area are likely to take a lot longer than the Virgin award period and cost a great deal more than the prize money is worth.

    I have no problem at all with prizes as motivations. The site lists several examples of where this worked to move things forward. Lindberg’s flight to Paris (non stop, meal) in 1927 is another one.

    But we’re not talking about delivering mail or building a car that drives itself to Las Vegas, parks at the Mirage and orders the buffet without human intervention or test flying a commercial rocket plane.

    The funding for the kind of research needed to solve the GHG problem (and I don’t mean the geoengineering solutions that I and others have proposed to buy time) should be in the billions, not millions. If governments, industries and people are depending on the Virgin Earth Challenge to bail them out, they better prepare to do some bailing themselves as the ice sheets retreat.

  50. 50
    Mark A. York says:

    Michael Crichton was on Charlie Rose last night.

    He repeated the usual fallacies, albeit reluctantly. He seems to think he’s the only one who’s “looked at the data.” In fact he says so. Rose was persistent, and finally asked if he would come back and debate with a scientist. MC asked if he could bring charts with graphs. One of you guys ought to sign up fast. Gavin? Run over there and show him where’s he’s missing the boat. He says Gore is wrong on Kilimanjaro, and the 20 feet of rise in 100 years, and that no one can predict the future with models. Why can’t they predict 10 years if they can with 100? The man needs help.